SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Already cast as a constitutional “trampling” by a federal judge, California’s bid to reveal President Donald Trump’s tax returns to primary voters sputtered again Wednesday before the state Supreme Court.
During oral arguments in a challenge brought by the California Republican Party, the justices pelted the state with questions about whether the law could open the door for lawmakers to begin requiring presidential candidates to do things like release medical records and birth certificates to gain ballot access.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye scoffed at the state’s argument that the law – which was originally vetoed by former Governor Jerry Brown in 2017 and requires candidates to submit at least the last five years of their tax returns – was simply crafted to produce a more informed primary electorate.
“I don’t know what it would do for you, but if I had to look through someone else’s five years of tax returns, I’m not sure how helpful that would be for me,” Cantil-Sakauye said to the state’s lawyer.
The bill’s Democratic authors contend Senate Bill 27’s main goals are to inform voters and ensure that candidates aren’t running for office for personal profit. It cleared the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature on party-line votes and Governor Gavin Newsom said he hoped it would become a national standard when he signed it last July.
But the bill was quickly challenged by Trump and others and is on hold after a federal judge temporarily blocked it in September. U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. warned that the bill could “open the floodgates” and allow other states to enact “nakedly political” ballot access laws.
After a nearly hour-long hearing in Sacramento, the court seemed primed to follow suit and halt the first-of-its-kind ballot access law.
Justice Ming Chin, appointed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson, was warm to the GOP’s argument that SB 27 goes against the spirit of a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1972. Proposition 4 created the “open presidential primary” in California and requires the secretary of state to list the names of all recognized candidate for president.
Chin and multiple justices asked whether the Legislature could decide down the line to pass outlandish ballot access laws.
“Do we get all high school report cards? Do we get certified birth certificates? Do we get five years of medical records? Where does it end?” Chin asked.
Deputy Attorney General Jay Russell, representing Secretary of State Alex Padilla, argued throughout that the Legislature has the “plenary power” to regulate state presidential primaries, and that it could decide to enact more requirements based on current events. He told the seven justices the tax requirement law is intended to continue the tradition of presidential candidates making their returns public.
“The Legislature very often reacts to current events,” Russell said of Trump’s longstanding refusal to turn over his tax returns. “The Legislature did not want what’s happening now to become the new normal going forward.”
As the justices continued to pile on, Cantil-Sakauye noted it wasn’t clear in the state’s briefs or the legislative record that lawmakers even considered the 1972 constitutional amendment requiring open primaries.
“We didn’t find anything, did you?” asked the Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointee.
Russell replied that he didn’t see anything in the legislative analyst documents relating “specifically” to the constitutional amendment created by Proposition 4. But he reiterated that he believes the Legislature has unrestricted power over presidential primaries.
“I don’t think that providing a tax return or having to fill out a tax return is a characteristic of a candidacy,” Russell argued. “It’s akin to a procedural function.”
The state GOP and its head Jessica Millan Patterson filed their challenge directly to the state high court in August, shortly after Governor Newsom signed the bill. The court granted the petition special consideration due to the pending election filing guidelines and skipped the underlying superior and appeal court steps. The court did not say when it would rule on the matter, but the parties’ lawyers said they expect a fast decision.
Wednesday’s hearing comes as the Ninth Circuit prepares to hear arguments in the related federal challenge brought by Trump’s campaign and various others, including the state GOP. The Ninth Circuit has yet to schedule oral arguments in the case that has the potential to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
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